Holy Thursday 2019
He loved his own in the world and loved them to the end. This line from the gospel of St John comes just before Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Jesus loved His own to the very end – I have always been struck by this. In my early years, it always jarred me. It did not fit with my subconscious apperception of God. God was to be placated and propitiated. You had to do all the work just to fly under the radar and even then you could never be quite sure. I believe this line is a tectonic shift. And I believe it will take us an eternity to unpack this.
Loving His own to the end. At one level, what immediately comes to mind, is the physical fact of the washing of the feet. The feet are not the prettiest body part. They have the best chance of getting dirty and smelly since they are in contact with the dust and dirt of the earth. Jesus does not stop with washing the head or the hands, He stoops to wash their feet. He loves them to the end – that is totally, from head to toe. In the same way, there is nothing in us that is not exposed to this love. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ Jesus – not even our sins. We must also remember that Jesus washed the feet of Judas. He did not send Judas off and then wash the feet of the good guys. Judas only goes off to betray him after his feet have been washed and after he has eaten the Lord’s body sacramentally in that first Eucharist. Jesus knew Judas would betray Him but He did not exclude Him. This is loving His own to the end. But there is a deeper meaning to this loving to the end.
In the other gospel writers – Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke – you have the narrative of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. St John’s gospel is the last gospel to be written. He has had years to ponder all that happened under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. St John has no institution of the Eucharist narrative. He has the foot washing. It is as if St John is leading us into the inner meaning of the Eucharist. Here is the omnipotent God in our flesh – the Word through whom the universe is made and sustained. And what does He do – He washes their feet. Even more He gives them His Body and His Blood which will be broken and poured out on the Cross the next day.
What does it tell us? That the omnipotent God is a beggar when it comes to love. He seeks our love and therefore cannot force us. Love that is compliant and coerced is not love at all. It has to be freely given. What a terrible freedom we possess, my brothers and sisters – so that even God is a beggar before us. The only thing God can do is pour Himself out, wash our dirty feet, give us His Body and Blood longing for us to get the message and love in return. His love is therefore vulnerable. It can be spurned. It cannot force us into anything. Jesus’ hope is that seeing this love face to face, our stony hearts might melt to return this love. The terrible freedom we have is summed up by the great St Maximus the Confessor. Man surrenders only under the extreme pressure of God’s humiliation. Imagine the hardness of our hearts that only God’s death can sometimes rouse us to convert. In the Eucharist, we see how God stoops, does everything like a mad lover to get to us – hoping to awaken our love, hoping to break through our suspicion and our cynicism, hoping to erode primordial mistrust. And even then it fails.
We ourselves know that we are guilty of our own careless attitude to the Body and Blood of Our Lord. I know I am. It can become one more thing we show up for. It does not explode our hearts and our lives. I believe we Catholics have lost the interior life we once had and when the interior life is lost, the Body and Blood of the Lord is just a nice ceremony we attend. Pope Benedict puts this attitude very well. He says ‘What predominates is not a new reverence for the presence of Christ’s death and resurrection, but a way of dealing with Him that destroys the greatness of the Mystery. The declining participation in the Sunday Eucharistic celebration shows how little we Christians of today still know about appreciating the greatness of the gift that consists in His Real Presence. The Eucharist is devalued into a mere ceremonial gesture when courtesy requires Him to be offered at family celebrations or on occasions such as weddings and funerals to all those invited for family reasons. The way people often simply receive the Holy Sacrament in communion as a matter of course shows that many see communion as a purely ceremonial gesture.
My brothers and sisters, we have a supreme gift with us – the Body and Blood of the Lord Himself. Only God can be crazy enough to do this. We, never. Our bodies are boundaries and not bridges. God’s Body is always the bridge. It is this divine madness that reaches down to awaken us to love in return. Thomas Troeger is a contemporary hymn writer who has a beautiful hymn entitled ‘If Christ is charged with madness’ and I would like to end this homily with the last verse of this hymn. ‘Yet earth needs heaven’s madness to seize with grace and bind the guilt, the hurt, the sadness, the fear and hate that blind. Intrude O Christ impassioned, with madness that’s divine upon this world we’ve fashioned and give it your design.’